Tangled Web at Interior Dept.


Lawsuit: A judge's order to shut down the agency's Internet connection has been painful for federal workers and the public, including the plaintiffs.

January 10, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FREDONIA, Ariz. - Ranger Benn Pikyakit is writing the text for displays at a new museum being created at Pipe Spring National Monument.

He has to research history on university Web sites, then clear the text with Kaibab Paiute tribal leaders and his supervisors at the National Park Service.

Until last month, the task was as easy as pecking away at his office computer.

Then, Pikyakit was cast back into the pre-Internet age, thanks to a 5-year-old lawsuit, which was helped along by a court-appointed hacker. The lawsuit, being fought in a Washington, D.C., courtroom, bars him and thousands of other federal employees from electronic contact with one another and the outside world.

The same suit is keeping vacationers from reserving national park campsites, preventing prospective federal employees from finding out about job opportunities and - in an ironic twist - blocking the plaintiffs from getting their own money.

"We feel cut off," says Pikyakit. "They say the Internet connection will come back, but they don't say how and they don't say when."

The class action suit, filed in Washington, D.C., alleges that the Interior Department has mismanaged the trust fund accounts of 300,000 Indians. The accounts collect $500 million annually from grazing, mining, oil and timber concerns for the use of 54 million acres owned by Indians.

The plaintiffs believe the Interior Department has lost more than $10 billion from the trust accounts and blame, in part, the computer system that keeps track of their accounts, some of which date to the 1880s.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth hired a hacker to test Interior's security and was alarmed to find out that it was possible to establish an account and alter existing ones.

Lamberth labeled the Interior computer system "a disgrace to the United States" and ordered the government to unplug agencies from the Internet. He ruled that each agency within the department would have to prove it has a firewall between the public and the trust funds.

The Indians say the government overreacted. "This just shows you how inept they are," says tribal lawyer Dennis Gingold. "They don't even understand how these systems relate to each other, so they just pull the plug on the entire system."

Lamberth has since amended his ruling to reconnect the agencies that provide emergency services, such as earthquake predictions and firefighting information.

The revised order was not extended to include the "ParkNet" Web site, which gets 700,000 hits daily and provides access to all 435 parks and monuments. ParkNet handles about 50 percent of the campground reservations.

David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, says a request to Lamberth last Friday for relief was rejected. A new request with additional information is being prepared.

"At first we thought, `This will be over in a week or so,' but now it's been longer than a month and now this is very, very serious," says Barna. "We're making do by returning to the way we operated pre-1993 and the Internet, but I think this thing is going to catch us down the road."

For example, the park service handles $300 million to $400 million in contracts each year: taking bids, awarding work and paying bills. That's not happening now.

"We're not paying contractors and that can only go on so long before people start getting annoyed. That's no way to do business," Barna says.

College students seeking summer employment at a national park cannot apply online. Full-time workers haven't been paid overtime since Dec. 5, and time cards must be filled out by hand and sent to a Denver processing center.

Writing to the Park Service isn't the answer, either. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, all agency mail has been routed to Ohio, where it is irradiated to protect against anthrax contamination.

"We get lots of letters from children looking for information," says Barna. "They all look like Sen. [Tom] Daschle letters, but all they're asking for is a brochure." Daschle, of course, was mailed anthrax in an envelope that had child-like writing on the outside.

For campers, some relief is available through a toll-free number (800-365-2267), which connects to a customer service center in Cumberland that accepts campground reservations up to five months in advance. But even that could become overwhelmed if the Internet connection remains down.

The judge's ruling has come back to hurt the plaintiffs. Many Indians, who rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide Internet access, are unplugged. And about 40,000 Indians have been unable to get their trust fund royalty checks.

"This is clearly a problem of Interior's creation," says Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. "Some of these are for the poorest people in the country. We're talking about folks who are using this money for basic, basic needs: keeping electricity on, buying heating oil, buying jackets for their kids."

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